TORONTO BLUE JAYS (Last Year: 81-81) – It was a pretty boring off-season for the Blue Jays. Despite being linking to just about every free agent out there, from Yu Darvish to Prince Fielder, they didn’t make any really big moves. The only changes they made were to the bullpen, where changes were badly needed, and some of the spots on the bench. They traded for Sergio Santos, to take the closer role, and Jason Frasor and signed free agents Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero to join holdovers Casey Janssen, Carlos Vilanueva and Jesse Litsch in the bullpen. Hopefully they will manage to cut down on the 24 blown saves from last year. The only other additions to the team were Jeff Mathis, to back up catcher J.P. Arencibia, and Omar Vizquel (because it is really important to have someone that remembers Neil Armstrong walking on the moon).The starting rotation looks to be the same guys we finished the season with: Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil (our obligatory player that came into camp in the best shape ever, he lost 33 pounds over the winter) and Dustin McGowan (back pitching after missing three years with various arm injuries). If one of them run into problems, Kyle Drabek is waiting in the wings for another chance.
The starting line up also looks to be the same as the group that ended last season. The only spot up for grabs is left field, where Travis Snider and Eric Thames will be battling it out. Thames seems to have the upper hand at the moment. The offense revolves around Jose Bautista, but they are hoping for a bounce back year from Adam Lind and for good seasons from mid-season pickups Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus, who seems very happy to be a Blue Jay after having some troubles in St. Louis. The best news, for our offense, is that we will get a whole season of Canadian Brett Lawrie. Brett hit .293/.373/.580 with 9 home runs in 43 games, in his first look at the majors. Getting him start the season at third can only make the team better.
The Jays seem to be the trendy pick for the team most helped by the extra wild card, but a lot of things would have to go right for them to improve enough upon their 81-81 record, from last season, for them to make the playoffs. I’d think the team should be fun to watch and end up in the 86-88 win range, many not quite enough to grab one of the wild card spots but a step in the right direction. ~ Tom Dakers (www.bluebirdbanter.com)
NEW YORK YANKEES – (Last Year: 97-65) – The Yankees came off a 97 win season last year with most of its roster coming back in 2012. Jorge Posada retired, but Jesus Montero was expected to step up in his place and only the rotation really needed to be addressed.
But it was a quiet winter for the most part as GM Brian Cashman didn’t like the prices of the free agents like Yu Darvish and C.J. Wilson and didn’t like the demands teams were making for pitchers on the trading block. So the Yankees sat back and waited for most of the winter before landing Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda in one night.
Now the Yankees have a new veteran starter and a promising young 23-year-old. Throw them together with CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and the inconsistent but once promising Phil Hughes and they have a strong rotation. With the offense mostly in tact from last season and one of the best bullpens in baseball 97 wins is another realistic goal.
The biggest concern is the new playoff format and the Red Sox. Both teams look very good going into this season but only one can win the division. 2012 could be a dog fight until the very end, but the Yankees have a team built to go all the way. It could be their last with Mariano Rivera closing games too so they need to take advantage of it. ~ Rob Abruzzese (www.bronxbaseballdaily.com)
BOSTON RED SOX – (Last Year: 90-72) – The Red Sox went into the 2011 season as the prohibitive favorites to win both the AL East and the American League pennant. After a rough 2-12 start, they rebounded to go 81-41 over their next 122 games. Then September hit, and everything came crashing halt that culminating in them getting knocked out on the final day of the season. What happened next was…well, surreal to say the least. Terry Francona and Theo Epstein left town for greener pastures, and the media went on a four month barrage where they fixated on everything from chicken and beer in the clubhouse to the Red Sox’s inactivity in the offseason.
Looking to 2012, the Red Sox come into the season with largely the same core in tact. Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury return to anchor the lineup, but many questions remain. Carl Crawford will try to bounce back from a disastrous 2011 season, while simultaneously trying to recover from torn cartilage in his wrist. This could be a tall order for Crawford as players are notoriously slow to recover from these types of injuries. Still, he’d be hard pressed to be less productive than he was last season. In right field, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross each have their flaws, but they seem to perfectly compliment each other. At the very least, they should be able provide an upgrade over J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick. Shortstop is another area of concern. The untested combination of Mike Aviles and Nick Punto have holes both offensively and defensively that could easily be exposed. Despite these concerns, there’s enough talent in the lineup to overcome any flaws that might exist.
On the pitching front, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz will return to front the rotation with the final two spots still to be determined. That thought is a little unsettling considering their $180M payroll. Daniel Bard should take one of those spots, but he’ll be limited to 150-170 innings at most. Replacement level talents like Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, or a dark horse candidate will take the final spot. The bullpen is somewhat unproven, but should remain solid. Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, recently acquired in shrewd trades, will fill out the closer and set-up roles. While they won’t outperform the Bard/Papelbon combo from 2011, they should hold their own.
I expect the Red Sox to battle it out with the Rays and Yankees through the end of the season. I predict they’ll win one of the two Wild Card spots, edging out the Rays for second place, with a 92-70 record. ~ Chip Buck (www.firebrandal.com)
BALTIMORE ORIOLES – (Last Year: 69-93) – The main theme to the Orioles acquisitions this off season has been acquiring solid depth while letting go of nothing of much importance. They signed hit-or-miss, mostly glove Endy Chavez, righty killer, ground ball hugger Wilson Betemit, and AAA OBPer Matt Antonelli. That is a solid bench, but they likely will see more playing time than should be warranted to players of that caliber. All hope lies in players like Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nolan Reimold taking the next step, JJ Hardy and Robert Andino repeating their performances, and Nick Markakis, Matt Reynolds, and Chris Davis rekindling their past expectations.
The most interesting aspect of this season is whether Dan Duquette pulled out of his sleeve a new market inefficiency: league average Japanese League starters. Tsuyoshi Wada and Taiwanese Wei-Yin Chen both profile as average or slightly below pitchers. Both pitchers are receiving about 4MM a year for their services. If projections are accurate, a similar established Major League pitcher like Aaron Harang or Chris Capuano would get a million or two more per year. Of course, this approach might be more interesting if used for a team with a greater likelihood of reaching the playoffs. We can all hope though. 78 wins should be what we can expect. ~ Jon Shepherd (www.camdendepot.blogspot.com)
TAMPA BAY RAYS – (Last Year: 91-71) – The 2012 Rays will look strikingly similar to the 2011 Rays. In Tampa Bay, it all begins and ends with pitching. The Rays bring back all five starters from 2011: 2011 Cy Young candidate James Shields, 2010 Cy Young candidate David Price, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Just to make things interesting, the Rays will add uber-prospect Matt Moore, who had wins in the pennant race and playoffs before ever throwing a pitch in a big league spring training, to the rotation as well. Most likely, Tampa Bay will break camp by sending Niemann or Davis to the bullpen and then going to a 6-man rotation after the slate of days off in the first month.
The Rays lineup, like its starting rotation, will look remarkably familiar in 2012. The Rays ended last season with gaping holes at shortstop, DH, first base and catcher. They added Luke Scott and re-added Carlos Pena to fill the spots at DH and 1B and to provide some protection for Evan Longoria. Unfortunately, they were unable to find a catcher this winter and, unless they pull a rabbit out of a hat and sign Pudge Rodriguez, they will break camp with a career backup (Jose Molina) and a minor leaguer (Robinson Chirinos, Jose Lobaton, Chris Gimenez, or Stepehn Vogt) in the bucket. ~ Mark Heilig (www.therayarea.com)